It began as a familiar old story.
In the early 2000s, multinational mining giant Rio Tinto came to the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to dig a nickel mine.
Environmentalists feared pollution. The company promised jobs.
The usual battle lines were drawn. The usual legal fights ensued.
But this time, something different happened.
The mining company invited a respected local environmental group to be an independent watchdog, conducting pollution testing that goes above and beyond what regulators require.
More than a decade has passed, and no major pollution problems have arisen. Community opposition has softened.
“I was fiercely opposed to the mine, and I changed,” said Maura Davenport, board chair of the Superior Watershed Partnership, the environmental group doing the testing.
The agreement between the mining company and the environmentalists is working at a time when demand for nickel and other metals used in green technologies is on the rise, but the mining activity that supplies those metals faces fierce local resistance around the world.
Historic mines, polluting history
The shift to cleaner energy needs copper to wire electrical grids, rare earth elements for wind turbine magnets, lithium for electric vehicle batteries, nickel to make those batteries run longer, and more. Meeting the goals of the 2015 U.N. Paris climate agreement would mean a fourfold increase in demand for metals overall by 2040 and a 19-fold increase in nickel, according to the International Energy Agency.
That means more mines. But mines rarely open anywhere in the world without controversy. Two nearby copper-nickel mine proposals hit major roadblocks this year over environmental concerns.
For the third year running, mining companies listed environmental, social and governance issues as the leading risk facing their businesses in a survey by consulting firm EY.
Mining is not new to the Upper Peninsula, the northern tip of the state of Michigan that is mostly surrounded by the Great Lakes. The region was the nation’s leading copper and iron producer until the late 1800s. An open-pit iron mine still operates about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of the college town of Marquette.
Most of the historic copper mines closed in the 1930s. But the waste they left behind is still polluting today.
Residue left over from pulverizing copper ore, known as stamp sands, continues to drift into Lake Superior, leaching toxic levels of copper into the water.
“The whole history of mining is so bad, and we feared … for our precious land,” Davenport said.
The ore Rio Tinto sought is in a form known as nickel sulfide. When those rocks are exposed to air and water, they produce sulfuric acid. Acid mine drainage pollutes thousands of kilometers of water bodies across the United States. At its worst, it can render a stream nearly lifeless.
When Rio Tinto proposed building the Eagle Mine about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Marquette, “it divided our community,” Davenport said.
“The Marquette community was against the mine,” she said, but the “iron ore miners, they were all about it.”
It’s the same story the world over, according to Simon Nish, who worked for Rio Tinto at the time.
“Communities are faced with this dilemma,” Nish said. “We want jobs, we want economic benefit. We don’t want long-term environmental consequences. We don’t really trust the regulator. We don’t trust the company. We don’t trust the activists. … In the absence of trusted information, we’re probably going to say no.”
Nish came from Australia, where a legal reckoning had taken place in the 1990s over the land rights of the country’s indigenous peoples. Early in his career, he worked as a mediator for the National Native Title Tribunal, which brokered agreements between Aboriginal peoples and resource companies who wanted to use their land.
It was a formative experience.
“On the resource company side, you can crash through and get a short-term deal, but that’s actually not benefiting anybody,” he said. “If you want to get a long-term outcome, you’ve actually really got to understand the interests of both sides.”
When Nish arrived in Michigan in 2011, Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine was under construction but faced multiple lawsuits from community opponents.
In order to quell the controversy, Nish knew that Rio Tinto needed a partner that the community could trust. So he approached the Superior Watershed Partnership with an unusual offer. The group was already running programs testing local waterways for pollution. Would they be willing to discuss running a program to monitor the mine?
“We were surprised. We were skeptical. Absolutely skeptical,” Davenport said. But they agreed to discuss it.
SWP insisted on full, unfettered access to monitor “anything, any time, anywhere,” Nish said.
SWP’s position toward Rio Tinto was “very, very clear,” he recalled: “‘We’ve spent a long time building our reputation, our credibility here. We aren’t going to burn it for you guys.'”
Over the course of several months — “remarkably fast,” as these things go, Nish said — the environmental group and the mining company managed to work out an agreement.
SWP would monitor the rivers, streams and groundwater for pollution from the mine and the ore-processing mill 30 kilometers (19 miles) south. It would test food and medicinal plants important for the local Native American tribe. And it would post the results of these and other tests online for the public to see.
And Rio Tinto would pay for the work. A respected local community foundation would handle the funds. Rio Tinto’s funding would be at arm’s length from SWP.
“We didn’t want to be on their payroll,” said Richard Anderson, who chaired the SWP board at the time. “That could not be part of the structure.”
Not over yet
The agreement launching the Community Environmental Monitoring Program was signed in 2012. More than a decade later, no major pollution problems have turned up.
But other local environmentalists are cautious.
“I do think [Eagle Mine is] really trying to do a good job environmentally,” said Rochelle Dale, head of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, another local environmental group that has opposed the mine.
“On the other hand, a lot of the sulfide mines in the past haven’t really had a problem until after closure.
“It’s something that our grandchildren are going to inherit,” she said.
As demand for metals heats up, opposition to new mines is not cooling off. Experts say mining companies are wising up to the need for community buy-in. Eagle Mine’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program points to one option, but also its limitations.
So far, so good. But the story’s not over yet.